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What Is Prototype Theory?

By Sandi Johnson
Updated Feb 09, 2024
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The prototype theory is a cognitive science theory developed by Eleanor Rosch in the early 1970s, with help from other experts in the field of cognitive psychology. In Rosch's theory, people categorize items and concepts based on a prototype or ideal representation of that category. For example, the concept of dog is often characterized by fur, a tail, and paws. When discussing or thinking about dogs, people think of classic, stereotypical examples such as collies or spaniels, because these represent the prototype. While a wolf or coyote might meet also meet the criteria of a dog, these animals are not prototypical of a dog.

According to the prototype theory, certain features of a category have equal status, and thus, examples that represent all or most of those features become the prototype for that category. Items that do not share the majority of these features may still belong to that category, but do not represent the prototype. Consider a category such as furniture. Features of furniture include wood, upholstery, seating, storage capacity, legs and arms, among many others.

Chairs may, to some individuals, be prototypical because these items of furniture have a majority of the common furniture features. A footstool, on the other hand, may not serve as a prototype because, while it has some common furniture features, it does not have a majority of those features. How each person applies prototype theory to categorizing concepts and language varies based on experience and cognitive development, although many individuals share similar categorizations.

Primarily, the prototype theory deals with how individuals categorize and stereotype certain items in language. Such understandings help psychologists understand and study the acquisition of vocabulary, individual mental lexicons, and the development of linguistic skills in individuals. Teaching environments, such as primary schools, benefit from such research and understanding when developing curricula for students. Understanding how the mind categorizes and classifies information, as well as how that process is affected by cognitive development, culture, and early learning experiences, aids in helping students gain vocabulary and develop more advanced language skills.

Under prototype theory, experts believe that a person's first experience with a particular stimulus later defines the prototype associated with that category of stimuli. As experiences are gained and a person is more exposed to a particular category, the prototype evolves into a central representation for that category. To put it in simple terms, a child's first experience with a bird might be a robin, and thus the child's prototype for birds becomes a robin. Through experience and exposure to other birds, her prototype comes to represent creatures with feathers, beaks, and the ability to fly, and can begin to include more birds like bluejays, eagles, and robins. An ostrich or a penguin may still be categorized as a bird, but because these species do not fly, they are not a representative example when the child initially talks of birds.

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Discussion Comments

By Ana1234 — On Nov 14, 2013

I wonder how much research has gone into the idea that the first experience a child has with something becomes the prototype for that object. I mean, it seems like there would be great potential for either harm or enlightenment if that were true, particularly when it comes to culture.

If you introduce kids to other cultures in a negative way, they will develop a negative prototype. But if you do it in a positive way, then they will be more positive.

By indigomoth — On Nov 14, 2013

@croydon - I don't know if that is entirely true. I've read several articles about animals who have learned language, like grey parrots and dolphins and even dogs, and they can distinguish between a category word (or a prototype) and a particular object.

The dog I'm thinking of (I can't remember her name) could be told to "get the ball" and she would get one, or she could be told to "get the big ball" and she'd know to get the larger one in a group of balls.

That's a very simple understanding of this kind of concept, but I would argue that it is still an understanding. So I'd be doubtful that early humans weren't able to basically do the same thing.

By croydon — On Nov 13, 2013

This is interesting. I remember reading a book when I was a teenager where the author speculated that ancient people had no way of putting things into categories like this. They might have individual names for trees, like oak and willow, but they had no word for tree.

It seemed ridiculous to me, because I felt like the concept of tree was easier to grasp than the concept of differences between different trees, but I guess the idea of "same but also different" might be a tough one if you don't have the cognitive structure to back you up.

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